Interval start races don’t usually end with desperate lunges for the finish line. But that’s exactly how Thursday’s 30 k national championship concluded in Rumford—with CXC’s Tad Elliott sprawled on his back, the winner over APU’s Lars Flora.
The scene may have looked ridiculous, but Elliott needed every inch. After an hour and ten minutes of racing, his winning margin
over Flora was a mere tenth of a second.
“I knew it was really tight,” Elliott said. “I was up for a while. And then it was nine seconds, then seven, then five, then four…I lunged so hard, I fell over.”
The lunge ruined what could have been a perfect birthday present for Flora, who turned 33 on Wednesday. Instead, he was relegated to second, with the U.S. Ski Team’s Noah Hoffman three seconds back in third place.
For Elliott, who finished second to Canada’s Ivan Babikov in last year’s 50 k national title, it was his first outright win at a U.S. championship.
“It’s sweet—it’s like a legit, legit win,” he said.
Wednesday’s competition likely wouldn’t have been any tighter if Elliott and Flora had started together. But with organizers restricted to a 2.5-kilometer loop, the race, originally scheduled as a mass start, was switched to individual start on Wednesday evening.
The men skied 11 laps, and at one point, all 101 starters were on course at the same time. Coaches, clipboards and pencils in
hand, helped their athletes keep track of progress.
The short loop made for some long trains rolling around the trails at Black Mountain, some as large as nine-strong. The trails were widened overnight, though, and the athletes had few complaints.
“There was a little traffic out there, but people were moving around,” said BSF’s Leif Zimmermann. “It’s a 30 k, so you have time…the hills had plenty of room.”
Zimmermann, who had a stellar fall in Europe and West Yellowstone, MT, was tight with Flora and Hoffman early. But a couple of bad feeds cost him roughly a minute over the last third of the race, pushing him back to fourth—though he wasn’t disappointed.
“The middle of the race for me—I hit a little of bit of a wall that way,” he said. “I still actually felt pretty good. It was more just my stomach, and the feeds…The competition is stiff, so you’ve got to be on you’re A-game here.”
Zimmermann skied the early part of the race in a pack with Elliott, who staked himself to an early lead.
Meanwhile, Hoffman hooked up with Flora as the latter finished his first lap—and the two skied the next 27 kilometers together, taking turns at the front. Towards the end of the race, they also picked up Sun Valley’s Mike Sinnott, who ended up fifth.
Initially, Flora was driving the train. But Hoffman appeared to come on strong in the later laps, using his churning skate technique to stretch Flora to his limit. With spit streaking his face and his expression best described as a snarl, the veteran looked like he was about to come apart. At one point he was gapped by Hoffman, but Flora managed to claw his way back.
“[Hoffman] towed me around for a number of laps, and I think with three laps to go, I was really hurting,” Flora said. “Mikey and Noah picked it up, and I barely hung on.”
Hoffman’s efforts were eating into Elliott’s gap, which had been as large as 17 seconds at one point in the race.
In the past two years, Elliott, 22, has grown into one of the country’s premier skaters, and at 135 pounds, he climbs as well as anyone. (He’s also the right weight for CXC’s women to use his skis on occasion, according to the team’s head coach, Jason Cork.)
He had just enough Wednesday to hold off Flora, who said that he may have missed an opportunity to win.
After nearly being dropped by Hoffman and Sinnott, Flora said that he had a bit of a second wind, but didn’t capitalize on it.
“Mikey really died on the last uphill, and I got a little too relaxed,” Flora said. “With a tenth of a second separating Tad and I, I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t go a little harder.”
Hoffman, meanwhile, skied to his first top-three in a championship race—he’d stood on the podium at distance nationals before, but only because some international athletes weren’t eligible.
He was visibly disappointed at the finish, but said that he was “okay with third place.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.